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North Coast moves out of historic drought

A few spits of rain over the past two days have done little for the region’s water supply, but with the wet weather months still on the horizon, the North Coast is in far better shape at this point in the season than it’s been in several years.

Lakes Sonoma and Mendocino have rebounded from four years of historic drought and have emerged well-positioned to meet the area’s water needs even after the high-demand, hot summer months, thanks to a wet 2015-16 that brought rainfall totals within reach of normal.

“Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma water supply levels are where we had projected they would be, which means we are in a good place to start the new water year,” said Brad Sherwood, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency.

State and federal agencies use Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 to mark the water year used to assess rainfall and storage data.

Santa Rosa closed out the year Friday with 32.14 inches of total rain, or 89 percent of normal, meteorologist Bob Benjamin of the National Weather Service said.

The weather service uses rainfall figures taken at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, where normal yearly rainfall is 36.28 inches, Benjamin said.

In 2014-15, the last year of drought, total rainfall was 25.01 inches at the airport, he said.

In Ukiah, near Lake Mendocino, total 2015-16 rainfall was 36.52 inches, or about ?98 percent of normal, National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Carroll said.

The 2014-15 total was ?26.75 inches.

Most of the rain fell during three or four winter storms that by March filled local reservoirs beyond official storage capacity.

The results are storage levels approaching 90 percent at Lakes Mendocino and Sonoma from which the Water Agency draws water used by the 600,000 consumers it supplies in Sonoma and northern Mendocino counties.

Lake Sonoma on Monday was holding about 212,000 acre feet of water, or 86 percent of the water supply pool, Sherwood said.

About 56,000 acre feet was in storage behind Coyote Dam at Lake Mendocino. That’s about ?88 percent of the targeted water supply, which varies throughout the year, depending on the date. The storage capacity of Lake Mendocino is actually about 86,370 acre feet.

The last time Lake Mendocino was this high was in 2012. It dropped below 40,000 acre feet at this point in time during each of the three years thereafter.

Benjamin said the long-range forecast is for a neutral rainy season, neither an El Niño nor a La Niña year, “so we’re expecting a normal rain year.”

Sonoma County has been considered out of drought and designated “abnormally dry” by the U.S. Drought Monitor since mid-March, but Sherwood urged residents to continue to use water carefully, with conservation in mind.

Recent drizzle is a sign “we are heading into the fall season,” a reminder people should turn off their irrigation systems, he said.

“We shouldn’t be seeing folks irrigating their yards now,” Sherwood said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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